Mascots in business aren't anything new. There's the Geico gecko, for example, Kellogg's Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy. But if insurance company Aflac and children's health product company Sproutel have anything to say about it, a mascot can go way beyond business recognition. The companies have partnered to turn the duck into an animatronic toy--the Aflac Duck Social Robot, also known as My Special Aflac Duck--for kids going through cancer treatment.

Putting kids back in the driver's seat by letting them have fun

Sproutel and Aflac might already have an "in" with kids just because My Special Aflac Duck is tech-based. (What kid these days wouldn't love a robot?!) It's also cute and still cuddly with a soft exterior, and it'd look right at home in any standard toy box.

But the duck is designed specifically for medical play. This type of activity lets kids use toys to feel comfortable with health treatments. It's especially important for chronic conditions like cancer, because the disease can be so overwhelming and disruptive for such a long period of time. A typical child with cancer, for example, has an average treatment length of 1,000 days. The medical play can be instrumental in restoring a comforting feeling of control. And reducing stress is also critical for cancer in particular because stress is known to facilitate the spread of cancer cells.

Smart features for practical care

Aaron Horowitz, Sproutel's CEO and co-founder, ran through the Bluetooth-enabled duck's key components with me:

  • Feeling cards--Kids going through cancer or other treatments often have trouble communicating their emotions. If a doctor or nurse asks how a kid is doing, the child can place one of these physical discs against the duck's chest and the duck will imitate the feeling on the disc. This makes it less stressful for the child to get across what's going on.
  • Lifelike heartbeat--The subtle rhythm and sensation, produced by a special vibrational speaker, is designed to have a calming effect.
  • Nuzzling--Capacitive touch sensors respond when you pet the duck and cue it to nuzzle you.
  • Breathing--The duck mimics slow, diaphragmatic breathing, which is known to calm the nervous system. Kids can breathe with the duck when they feel scared or in pain.
  • Augmented reality app--The program allows kids to interact with the duck in ways that mirror their own care activities, such as feeding/eating, doing medical procedures, cleaning and bathing.
  • Soundscapes--Also accessible via the app, Soundscapes lets kids build "planets" with unique sound profiles. While that's fun in itself, professionals can use Soundscapes to help the kids with guided meditations or distraction therapy. Plus, it can drown out the nerve-wracking noise so common in busy hospitals.
  • Microphone--Talk to the duck and it will respond to you in fun quacks. This simple turn-taking can keep a kid from feeling so isolated as treatment happens and encourages continued social engagement.
  • Ambient light sensor--Kids going through cancer treatment can be really sensitive to light. So if a child activates the duck in a dim room, the duck will use a different set of programming to ensure it's not a disturbance, such as lowered volume and LEDs.
  • Removable "skin"--If the duck's exterior gets dirty or soiled, just pop it off and sanitize it in the washing machine.

Going beyond one place or person

Horowitz says the duck, which is part of the ongoing Aflac Childhood Cancer Campaign, will be used in multiple settings.

"Alfac has made a commitment that every child who is diagnosed with cancer next year will receive one of these ducks at no cost. So the intention is that the ducks are given to kids both in the hospital setting and at home. So we will also be providing ducks to some specialists to use as demonstration tools in the hospital. [...] ...Having something that kids can continue to practice [medical play] with and get comfortable with at home is really powerful."

The companies are considering the potential social effects the duck could have, too. Horowitz says that, like another of Sproutel's products, Jerry the Bear, the Aflac duck could be a show-and-tell item in schools. That might help kids explain their condition and treatments to their peers so it's easier to make and keep friends. The duck also could encourage togetherness within affected families.

"Often, siblings really feel left out during the cancer treatment process because all of the attention goes to the other sibling. So this is an opportunity where a family can play together and the sibling can feel included in the play itself."

Because of its potential and clear, positive functions, the Aflac Duck Social Robot already has won the 2018 CES Tech for Better World Innovation Award. It's currently set to start arriving at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta for more testing and will go nationwide in winter 2018.

The partnership between Aflac and Sproutel is a wonderful demonstration that businesses can take the very face of a brand and reinvent it into something that has a larger purpose. It doesn't have to be all about the product or dollars and cents, and technology, psychology and science all can work together for a social good. You can follow the example. It's just a matter of finding a cause you're passionate about.